A lesson in politics from Phil Donahue and The Duke

Phil Donahue interviews John Wayne in 1976.
Phil Donahue interviews John Wayne in 1976. YouTube

How I came to be watching a 1976 episode of “The Phil Donahue Show” on YouTube one recent night with Phil interviewing the late actor John Wayne, doesn’t matter.

What matters is I clicked it and there was Phil. Young, his hair still salt-and-pepper, the reigning king of Daytime TV was towered over by the 6-foot-4 movie icon who looked as truly “Duke” as he ever again might. Three years later, cancer would kill him.

As surely as he had become the screen cowboy-soldier — to the point of parody — Wayne had become an equally outsized Republican stalwart. He helped launch the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals in the 1940s and in the ‘50s supported the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was a big Nixon backer and proponent of the Vietnam War.

So there was macho man Wayne, and Donahue — one of the most prominent activist, feminist, liberal media voices of the 1970s. He was Oprah before Oprah.

The famously probing, prowling Donahue didn’t shy away from Wayne’s politics, but was disarmingly deferential.

“Can I ask you some heavy stuff?”

“Yeah, sure, go ahead.”

“You won’t get mad at me, will you?” Donahue said with feigned sheepishness.

Wayne laughed and rolled his head back in feigned embarrassment.

“You want Ronald Reagan to be president,” Donahue stated flatly.

“Of course!” Wayne replied, with soft assurance.

Phil clearly disapproved but prodded gently.

“You think he’s got a real shot?”

It was April of 1976 and Reagan was challenging President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination.

“I think the man has great capabilities,” Wayne asserted.

He explained thoughtfully why he preferred Reagan to Ford, and his support for the former California governor’s vision of smaller government and lower taxes. Donahue was anything but a Reagan disciple, yet responded by playing angles to get Wayne talking more.

“You’re not all-together uncomfortable with Gerald Ford, are you?”

“You’ve got some friends who are liberals?”

An influential American with strong conservative political opinions was given time to explain his beliefs by an interviewer with equally strong liberal views. There was no “And in This Corner!” cartoon wrestling match. There was no surly Sean Hannity scowl or cantankerous Chris Matthews condescension.

It was a fascinating conversation that would have no home on TV today.

As Donahue waded through the crowd for questions, there was fawning and flirting from the women in the audience. Eventually, one of the few men rose and pitched a perfect softball.

“As a small-town Republican politician, I am proud and pleased that a man of your caliber is associated with our party ... But I’m concerned because according to the press you’ve been wined and dined by Mayor Daley of Chicago, who is ‘Mr. Democrat Number-One’ ... and I hope to hear from you that you will never fail the Republican Party.”

Some in the crowd gasped, others laughed. The partisan smirked as he sat, basking in self-approval. The guest responded in his most John Wayne moment of the show.

“I will try and never fail the wonderful country that I live in,” he said with forehead furrowed and eyes firmly focused in reprimand as the crowd interrupted with applause.

“And I will continue to respect men who I think are doing a good job for our country.”

Some of us could stand to take some lessons from Phil and The Duke.

Observer contributor Keith Larson’s regular podcasts can be heard on Email: Twitter @TheLarsonPage